Hail to thee, Northwestern
June 17, 2016

Ten years ago today, the unthinkable happened: I graduated from college. After four gruelling years of battling Chicago winter and differential equations, I finally completed my engineering degree.

My mother cried as she hugged me tight outside Ryan Field, where the commencement ceremony took place. Whether it was tears of joy or relief is anyone's guess. She was usually the first to know my grades when the transcripts reached home by courier. So four years of receiving discouraging news by mail every semester had finally come to an end.

My father, too, couldn't stop smiling. I will never forget how proud he looked that day. It must have been quite a special moment to witness your firstborn graduate. Especially when you’re the guarantor to his scholarship.

It was a beautiful Friday morning in Evanston. The sun was bright and the breeze from Lake Michigan was mild. Our commencement speaker for the day was one Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). I make a point to watch his speech on YouTube on June 16th every year.

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition,” he said, “It asks too little of yourself, and it will leave you unfulfilled.”

A decade has passed and his prose remains forever etched in the memories of members of the Class of 2006. Mr. Obama will end his second term as President of the United States later this year.

I spent four years at Northwestern University as an undergraduate, between 2002 - 2006. I was 18 when I first set foot on the lakeside campus, and couldn’t fully appreciate how privileged I was to call Evanston home for the next four years. Chicago was just 10 miles away, and we had a diverse range of cuisines around the campus town. From Chinese to Lebanese, Evanston was a haven of food I could not afford.

But age wasn’t the only reason I was unable to fully immerse myself in the beautiful surroundings. I didn’t have the time to do so. Northwestern is a competitive place full of smart people. And competitive and smart are two traits that I neither possess nor able to pretend to possess. So I had to play catch-up with my classmates for the majority of my time there.

Those who went to college with me would attest that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. My struggle was compounded by the University’s quarter system. An unforgiving schedule of 10-week semesters where you will get a mid-term before your textbook could arrive from Amazon. I think we had a mid-term during orientation week.

Alas, maturity and academic rigour are merely excuses I am making today for my underperformance back then. I was young and stupid once, and now I am a little bit older.

I did lead a reasonably vibrant life outside the classroom. I was involved in several student groups, and worked part-time as a web designer for the University. Not to mention the odd gigs I performed at on campus, and a forgettable stint in our Southeast Asian intramural soccer team. What can you expect a Malaysian bring to the team anyway?

My time at Northwestern is an experience that I would never trade for the world. It was a period when I was just young enough to be foolish with my priorities, and old enough to not burn down the chemistry lab. I somehow survived, and learned some of life’s most invaluable lessons while studying there. These range from leading a student organisation to cooking ramen at room temperature. (1. Soak overnight 2. Eat for breakfast)

A few months from now, my little daughter will enrol into playschool. I am both nervous and excited for her. It might not have the intensity of an undergraduate education -- I never had ‘Naptime 101’ in college, at least not formally -- but she will find school extremely challenging if she inherits my genes more than her mother’s.

No matter what life throws at her, however, I do hope that she takes it with pride. Growing up is all about building resilience, and if she works hard enough, opportunities might just come knocking on her door. And if this opportunity comes in the form of a scholarship, I’m sure her mother would be more than happy to become guarantor.

My best wishes to all members of Northwestern University Class of 2006. Go Cats!


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Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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